The Magazine

Hopper's World

Solitude, light, and harbingers of death.

Oct 15, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 05 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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This immobility doesn't always work. Consider Ground Swell (1939), a sailing picture popular with undiscerning tourists but really quite weird. Compared with sailing scenes by Homer, this one gives us an ocean with all the vivacity of a blue carpet draped over three logs, an effect made worse by the bell buoy and sailboat, which seem to have tipped over after having been balanced on top of the logs. As for the sailors, they are little more than marionettes arranged in a tableau.

Hopper was wise to stay away from nautical subjects, because in that realm, immobility seems not uncanny but incompetent. Only on dry land do frozen postures and lack of interaction pack an emotional wallop, as in the old myths about people being turned to stone.

It is tempting to define Hopperesque in social-political terms, because while he eschewed the skyscraper (the urban motif most beloved of modernists), he painted other up-to-date subjects, such as automats, diners, movie theaters, and gas stations. But social-political interpretations of Hopper tend not to stick. One early critic touted him as "the most inherently Anglo-Saxon painter of all time." Hopper briefly embraced this role as racial hero because it boosted his reputation with a cultural establishment still inclined, in the 1920s, to denounce modernist art as effete, alien, and downright un-American. This posture lost most of its appeal in the 1930s, when Stalin and Hitler began to persecute and murder modernists in the name of the New Communist Man and the German Volk, respectively.

So did Hopper side with modernism? Not in any simple way. Like all great painters, he was a master at manipulating the purely formal elements of color, line, shape, and pictorial space. He was also an abstractionist in the sense of heightening (abstracting) certain elements to suit his expressive purposes. But Hopper shared the public's dislike of the radically nonrepresentational art that emerged in the early 20th century, whether the ideologically driven geometric art of Malevich or the otherworldly hieroglyphics of Kandinsky. Nonrepresentational art was devoted to capturing the invisible dimension of human experience, but for Hopper that made little sense.

He was a man of few words. As one friend recalled, "He spoke in a flat monotone that falls across the conversation like a roadblock which had to be removed before further progress could be made." But Hopper waxed eloquent on the importance of recognizable images in visual art, writing in 1928: "The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm, and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design."

Thus did Hopper wind his way through the artistic landscape of the 20th century, sidestepping most of the ideological land mines and insisting on the uniqueness of his vision. But he was no "outsider artist," oblivious to the sophisticated culture of his time. He learned much from the modernists, especially the surrealists. From de Chirico he took the deserted cityscape divided between brilliant light and profound shadow. From Magritte he took the strangely altered ordinary scene. Consider the odd, disproportionately small scale of the figures in Sunday (1926) and Gas (1940), or, in Rooms by the Sea (1951), the unnerving sight of a door opening directly onto mid-ocean.

But Hopper's deepest achievement goes beyond surrealism. Co-curator Carol Troyen writes of "the inward, subjective, dreamlike nature of many of his pictures, which are dreamlike even when they take place in broad daylight." Typically, critics put a negative spin on this dreamlike aspect. "Call it loneliness," wrote Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe. To Troyen, it is unfulfilled yearning:

Many of Hopper's paintings featuring women bring together isolation, sensuality, and unease. Some evoke the pathos of solitude literally laid bare. Others crackle with erotic tension. But most create an environment in which the anticipation of meaningful connection is inevitably disappointed.

The obvious inference is that Hopper is all about sexual repression. This is America, after all, land of the Puritans, and according to one critic, Hopper had "the Anglo-Saxon's capacity for Puritanism." In Office at Night, a curvaceous woman stands at a file cabinet in an alluring pose, while her male coworker sits at a desk staring hard at a piece of paper. Neither looks at the other. The woman seems to be stealing a glance, but in fact her eyes are downcast. It is easy to imagine that these two people are gripped by desire but paralyzed by inhibition. But does this mean all of Hopper's brooding, detached figures are best seen as Puritans seething with lust? Of course not. As Troyen suggests, the connection yearned for by Hopper's people is "meaningful," even if "inevitably disappointed."